"Why do you want to enter Israel?"
"To visit the holy sites in Jerusalem."
I'm standing in a tiny room located in a checkpoint facility on the Israeli/Jordanian border. An Israeli immigration agent holding my passport is grilling me while my sister, who is traveling with me, waits her turn outside.
"The Dome of the Rock, Al-Aqsa Mosque, Mount of Olives..." I answer without missing a beat.
I had mentally prepared myself for this interrogation well before I arrived. Friends who previously visited the region warned me that as a Muslim, I was sure to receive "special treatment" (aka a hard time) by Israeli officers when attempting to cross the border. So I wasn't the least bit surprised when the agent checking my passport a few minutes earlier asked me to wait to the side for additional questioning. I'm brown, possess an Arab sounding name and wear a headscarf. There's a good chance I'm Muslim and therefore, an automatic national security threat.
The officer, who doesn't look much older than me, continues his interview and inquires about my studies, where I'm staying and my lack of luggage (I had left it in my hotel in Jordan). Of particular interest to him is my recent pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.
"You went for Umrah in Saudi Arabia?" he asks.
"Yes, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," I nod, pointing to the large "Umrah Visa" sticker on my passport. I'm tempted to add an "obviously," but now is not the time to be cheeky.
"Do you have any weapons with you? Maybe a gift someone gave you for your tour guide?"
He finally returns my passport and motions for my sister to come in. She is released a few minutes later after corroborating my story.
"Well, that wasn't too bad," I say, somewhat surprised, as we walk toward the visa desk together. I had heard horror stories of people being detained for six to nine hours there. I was finished in less than an hour.
Little did I know that our ordeal was far from over. It didn't matter that I was a citizen of the United States, Israel's strongest ally in the world. What was more important was that I was Muslim and as such, wasn't going to be allowed into their country easily.
Another officer, this time a woman, at the visa desk asks us a few additional questions about our travel plans before handing us a form to fill out that would be collected by yet another officer.
"You mean we're going to be questioned again?" I wonder aloud, slightly alarmed that this could interfere with my plans to make Jummah (Friday) prayer taking place a few hours later in Jerusalem.
She nods and points in the direction of several rows of hard, cold chairs where other questionable border crossers were already sitting. I sigh. Maybe this was not going to be so simple after all.
We fill out the requested forms (with the same information we had already repeated to the other officers) and wait. And wait. Someone comes to collect the forms. More waiting ensues. Little by little, the area clears of travelers, but no one comes for us.
To pass the time, my sister and I read a travel book on Jerusalem that we brought with us. But I can't focus. I am frustrated, annoyed and exhausted. I have just flown in from Istanbul the night before and only managed about three hours of sleep before getting up to drive to the Jordan/Israel border that morning. I want nothing more than to get my visa and leave.
Minutes turn into hours. The cutoff time for us to leave before Jummah passes. A female officer holding my passport finally arrives to question me.
"Sorry about the wait," she says as we sit down.
"I'm sure you are," I want to quip back. "Forcing me to wait for hours for no reason while you let the blonde girl in front of me go through without a hitch, making me miss what could be a once in a lifetime opportunity to pray Jummah prayer in one of the holiest mosques on Earth, and treating me like a security threat simply because of my faith, which is actually quite similar to yours. Yes, I'm sure you are very sorry."
But I keep my mouth shut and wait for her to continue.
"Can you tell me about your trip to Pakistan?"
"Went to visit extended family," I answer shortly.
"Have you gone back since then?
"Do you have any friends or family in Jerusalem or in the area?"
The list goes on and on. Among other things, she wants to know what I'm studying, what I want to do after I graduate, if I work for anyone, whether I am a part of any political causes or groups, if I visited any other Middle Eastern countries, where my family lives, and where and how long I am planning to stay.
I answer her inquiries in a straightforward manner, not bothering to elaborate on anything. Elaboration means additional questioning. I have nothing to hide, but I also don't have time to waste sitting around answering personal questions from suspicious officers in this security facility.
At last, the interrogation ceases. The officer stands and informs me that my visa will be ready soon. I must have said something right. I return to my cold, plastic chair and wait for what seems like forever before someone eventually returns my passport with the visa I have endured so much frustration for.
"Let's go," I tell my sister, grabbing my backpack. "We're done."
Freedom never tasted so sweet. When I finally arrive in Jerusalem that afternoon and witness the holy sites for the first time with my own eyes, I know that it was all worth it. The glimmer of gold shining off the Dome of the Rock is a sight I will never forget, and the afternoon prayer (Asr) I offer there is something truly special. Afterwards, I visit Jewish and Christian sites and witness the profound effect they have on their people as well.
My time in the Holy Land comes to an end much too quickly, and I vow to return one day. The interrogations, the suspicions, the endless waiting -- I would do it all again in a heartbeat. If Israelis believe they can deter me from visiting the Holy Land through these tactics, they are wrong. Muslims, Jews and Christians all have a right to experience their rich religious history in this sacred place. If anything, my ordeal on the Israeli border only made me that more determined to try, God willing, to visit Jerusalem again one day.
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